Event Recap

By Vasiliki Mitrakos and Gosia Labno

Scholars, students and community members gathered on January 9th at the University of Chicago for a daylong symposium on the human and economic costs of China’s environmental challenges. The event, co-sponsored by the university’s Center for International Studies (CIS), Energy Policy Institute at Chicago (EPIC) and the Paulson Institute, featured Hank Paulson, chairman of the Paulson Institute, Michael Greenstone, director of EPIC, and Dali Yang, founding faculty director of the university’s Center in Beijing, among others.

Paulson, former U.S. Treasury Secretary, opened the symposium by stressing the importance of a clean environment for economic growth.

“I make the case over and over again that economic progress and a successful economy is not at odds with a clean environment,” he said. “As a matter of fact, they are opposite sides of the same coin. For economic growth to be sustainable, you need a healthy environment, and I think we are increasingly seeing this in the world today.”

With respect to the relationship between the U.S. and China – a key partnership as countries move towards the Paris climate negotiations next December – Paulson emphasized the potential for mutual benefit through further collaboration.

“I don’t think we can address [environmental sustainability] adequately unless the U.S. and China work together,” he said. “We’ve got to move quicker in terms of addressing climate, and our two countries are ready to do it. No one innovates better than we do in the United States… and no one can roll out these new technologies quicker than China.”

China, like the U.S., is already developing policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions. They have done so following several studies linking the country’s heavy air pollution to negative health impacts – including a study by the World Health Organization and by EPIC’s Michael Greenstone. Greenstone presented his findings at the symposium, which found that people in northern China are exposed to more pollution than those in the south. As a result, those living in the north would see their lives cut short on average by 5 years, he found.

Since these findings, China has declared a ‘war on pollution’ and has rolled out several programs and policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, such as a pilot cap-and-trade program. But many challenges still lie ahead in terms of recuperating the consequences of environmental damages and preventing further damage.

Several University of Chicago students, part of the Metcalf Internship program, provided insight on how citizens, local governments and the national government are dealing with the pollution crisis. Their reports were followed by a discussion on institutional developments, led by Qingzhi Huan (Peking University), Dongya Huang (Sun Yatsen University) and DaliYang (UChicago).

Mark Templeton, a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School turned the discussion to the environment and implications in the law. He introduced Rachel Stern, from UC-Berkeley, who focused on the rise of China’s environmental courts. She concluded that in order to attract more cases dealing with serious environmental concerns, a clear mission has to be defined by these courts.

The day ended with closing remarks by Yang, a political science professor at UChicago. He considered the symposium a “wonderful collaboration” and encouraged further work amongst the students, professors and researchers. A follow-up symposium is already being planned for the spring. Stay tuned for more information on that symposium, which will likely be webcast.

Areas of Focus: Environment
Producing and using energy damages people’s health and the environment. EPIC research is quantifying the social costs of energy choices and uncovering policies that help protect health while facilitating growth.
Air Pollution
Air Pollution
Air pollution from fossil fuel combustion poses a grave threat to human health worldwide. EPIC research is using real-world data to calculate the effects of air pollution on human health...